By Marek Krasuski
This year is promising to be a tipping point for a new generation of commercial vehicles, and one that could revolutionize the industry. Tesla recently rolled out its much anticipated automated fully electric semi-truck. The semi can reach 500 miles before recharging and can carry 80,000 pound loads. It is equipped with automatic braking, lane keeping and lane departure warnings. But what really raises eyebrows is the enhanced autopilot feature that enables the truck to drive itself on highways.
Autonomous vehicles will not be fully automated – at least not yet. Drivers still will be required to maneuver the trucks in congested areas. But for long distance driving the transition to trucks rolling down North American highways without a driver behind the wheel is revolutionary. Drivers will still be present in cabs but free to do paperwork and manage fleet logistics, and ensure safety devices are fully operational.
Tesla is not alone in raising the industry to new heights of innovation. Otto, a self-driving truck company, tested its prototype on the I-25 from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs. The driver drove the truck until it hit the highway, then sat in the back of the cab for the 120-mile highway drive. The benefits for safety, efficiency, and environmental well being are unmistakable. Here are some of them described by the company: “With an Otto-equipped vehicle truck drivers will have the opportunity to rest during long stretches of highway while the truck continues to drive and make money for them. When you’ll see a truck driving down the road with nobody in the front seat, you’ll know that it’s highly unlikely to get into a collision, drive aggressively, or waste a single drop of fuel.” Indeed, safety, a cardinal standard in the industry, is a compelling reason to embrace autonomous vehicles. In the US about 4,000 people die every year in truck related accidents. Self-driving trucks are predicted to go a long way in reducing casualties, at least those related to human error. But not everyone agrees. A US poll undertaken by Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety showed a clear majority of respondents – 64 percent – were uneasy about sharing the road with driverless vehicles. One complaint focused on the lack of cyber security standards and the risk of hacking computer systems that could render trucks vulnerable to the control of criminals.
Drivers can take some comfort knowing they will still be needed for non-highway driving, docking, loading and unloading along with logistics-related tasks. Some truck builders claim that fearing the removal of drivers from autonomous vehicles misses the point. It’s not about removing drivers, they say, but about extending their capabilities to operate more safely when on the road.
But given the accelerating pace of change, especially when it comes to the explosive growth and sophistication of technology, the future of the truck driver is anybody’s guess. And the answer to the question is even more elusive in light of conflicting predictions. While some truck makers say putting autonomous trucks into full operation is still many years away, Tesla on the other hand, says its automated truck will go into production next year.
Some industry players are predicting that autonomous trucks may eliminate the need for a driver altogether. Once a truck is off highway a driver equipped with a joy stick in a separate location could guide trucks to their drop-off destinations. It is estimated that one driver could handle up to 30 trucks per day.
If there is any silver lining it is that autonomous trucks could alleviate the crisis of the driver shortage in commercial transportation. With the American Trucking Associations predicting shortages above 200,000 drivers by 2020 autonomous vehicles could alleviate the problem. But it could also do more damage in the long run. Some economists predict a job loss of 300,000 each year due to automation. There are over 3 million truckers in heavy truck and delivery positions, so could the demise of the trucker come sooner than later with such a large annual job loss rate?
It might be too early to answer definitively; the time it takes for autonomous vehicles to become mainstream and to work their way into all applications could be years down the road. In the meantime drivers have the chance to retrain, retire, or re-think their place in an industry replete with self-driving trucks.☚